Continuing the Conversation on 1001 Inventions

Last week I wrote on two adjacent occasions about the museum exhibit and book 1001 Inventions which tried to show how Muslim innovations contributed to the modern world. Though true that the Arab world has influenced the world, including in the sciences, the exhibit was factually wrong in many cases and deserving of criticism. I also mentioned an article from Taner Edis and Sonja Brentjes in Skeptical Inquirer which pointed to a goodly number of the problems with that exhibit. Brentjes is an academic that studies the history of science and mathematics, especially in relation to the medieval period and the Islamic world. She has published in various locales, including in Isis, the premiere journal for the history of science.

So it was a surprise that she had read my blog post on the subject and left a comment. But though we agree that the 1001 Inventions exhibit is not up to academic snuff, she also had issue with what I wrote. So, because it was long, I want to respond here. I’ll skip over our agreements, but I do feel misconstrued on numerous points, and others seem to get the same treatment.

First, Brentjes had issue with me saying that Jason Colavito’s response to the Skeptical Inquirer article was competent. So, let me clarify what I think Colavito got right. The SI article did not quote from 1001 Inventions, so it was difficult to know how the exhibit misconstrued the flight of Ibn Firnas. Moreover, the only historical source mentioned in SI, that of al-Maqqari which did not have the details showing that Ibn Firnas’ flight was powered, so the criticism of 1001 Inventions saying that the flight was powered was difficult to support. However, as I noted in my post, 1001 Inventions used other, even less reliable sources that goes beyond that found in al-Maqqari. But that was not known via the SI article, so it required me going to get the 1001 Inventions book to find out what it claimed and how it goes well beyond al-Maqqari for its narrative. So, taking the point that Colavito was trying to make, that it took extra work on the part of the reader of SI to see how the exhibit was credulous, that is what I thought was a reasonable criticism. It was also the reason why in my blog post that I quoted the book 1001 Inventions to show how it was way beyond any of the more reliable sources (not to mention what we know about human physiology). This doesn’t bring into doubt Edis and Brentjes’ criticism of the exhibit, just that it isn’t the best for the lay reader without access to the source material. So, no one is wrong besides the exhibit authors, just that the presentation of the vacuity of the exhibit wasn’t justified in the best way for SI readers.

Moving onto another person that I mentioned: Klingschor. What I said was that he had studied Islam in an academic setting because he is a college student getting his degree in this area. (The video I linked also seems obviously to have been done in a dorm room.) Moreover, his criticism of the book was in academic fashion as it had proper citations, something the exhibit and book 1001 Inventions does not have. However, I did not say I agreed with his assessment of the exhibit, and I even said to some degree he was ruffing up a strawman. So I only highlighted his video to show what responses I have found to the exhibit, but my own critique was independent of it, so the attack on Klingschor is to some degree a red herring. Also, it was surprising to hear from Brentjes calling him a racist. It is true that Klingschor attacks the religion of Islam, but that is far away from being a racist; rather, this reminds me of the response Thomas Thompson got when he doubted the existence of the Biblical patriarchs and was called antisemitic. Considering that Klingschor in the video distinguished Arabs from Muslims, he is avoiding talk of race and not confabulating it with religion. So, I don’t understand what in particular had perturbed Brentjes to make that claim, even though it has nothing to do with my critique.

But getting to what I said rather than others, many ideas seem to be put into my mouth. But before getting into that, let me be clear. I am not a professional historian, let alone of Islamic intellectual developments as Brentjes is, so I do not want to make anyone think I am the fount of knowledge all should drink from when it comes to medieval and ancient science. So when Brentjes says I do not know all the academic studies on the matter, she is absolutely right. However, my criticisms of the 1001 Inventions exhibit as well as the look into Hellenistic science was to make the point that most of the innovations/discoveries mentioned by 1001 Inventions could be found in earlier writings and that the ancients made discoveries far more profound and greater in number (at least in astronomy; in chemistry the ancients were not great). Moreover, I do not claim that the medieval Arab world did not innovate or improve in the sciences, though I argue it did not have as impressive a rate as the Hellenistic scientists had. So, I do not want to take the Eurocentric claim that the Greeks were great, and the Arabs were inferior; but there is a comparison to be made. (Besides, my article talks of many innovations made by Greek writers in Egypt, especially in Alexandria, and I mentioned Babylonian and Chinese scientific knowledge, so I was not being Eurocentric.)

So, let’s get into the dirt. Brentjes agrees that the Greeks had the astrolabe before the Arabs did. But then she says I disregard the work done by Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Sabeans in making astronomical instruments. First, my point of citing Greek astrolabes and armillary spheres was to show Muslims didn’t invent them as 1001 Inventions claims; I didn’t say the Arabs were not great in this respect. In fact, I say that the Arabs did better.

However, the medieval Arab version of the astrolabe was improved without a doubt…

That’s hardly disrespecting Arab contributions when I say they improved on the astrolabe. My claim was just that the Greeks had it first. Hardly racist or disrespectful to Muslims or anyone else. As for Islam being a reason to improve these tools, that is a fair point. Muslims cared about the time of day especially because of getting the correct prayer times, something that would not have been so strong a motivation before Islam. To get an idea of how poor ancients cared about the exact time, Seneca in his Pumpkinification of Claudius 2.2 says how sun dials were an varied in their answers as philosophers; if exact time was so important for most people, these instruments wouldn’t have been so common and popular. So, I must give credit where credit is due, and that is to Muslims who cared to perfect instruments to get better time-keeping.

In fact, I am willing to give another Islamicly-motivated contribution to the sciences, one that I don’t think has been argued in the academic literature. In my own research, I had looked into the first observations of the zodiacal lights. This is a glow in the sky due to the light of sun reflecting on dust in the plane of the planets; this light produces a glowing cone before the sun rises. This was an issue in Islam because of the timing of morning prayers, so there is a hadith about the “false dawn”, warning to not confuse it with the real dawn and hence the time of prayer (cf. Qu’ran 2:187). From my search, there seems to be no knowledge of this phenomenon before the time of Mohammad. The hadith comes from Abu Dawud (9th century), and the phenomenon is specified in an 11th century Arabic dictionary. So, this seems to be a discovery as a result of Islamic concerns; find the true dawn, and in observing the sky Muslims discovered the “false dawn” centuries before it was noted by Europeans. So, I think this may be a great example of a religious belief motivating a scientific discovery and examination.
So, don’t let it be said that I think there were no Muslim innovations or that Islam did not give motivation for a scientific endeavor. Muslims didn’t just preserve Greek knowledge, nor did they just improve Greek science. Muslims made new discoveries, including the zodiacal lights and the Andromeda galaxy. But since I never claimed Muslims didn’t innovate, Brentjes’ criticism of me on this point is simply missing the target.
Next, Brentjes complains that while Ptolemy’s work was inspirational to the Arab world, I did not also related how Ptolemy was helped by astronomical contributions from the Assyrians/Babylonians/Persians. But since my point of citing Ptolemy was usually to show that certain knowledge or tools were pre-Islamic, Brentjes is making a red herring. Besides, I do give credit to the Babylonians when it comes to Hipparchus’ discovery of the precession of the equinoxes, and I said that Babylonians had figured out moon phase times for their own calender work. Sure, I don’t go into such contributions as Otto Neugebaur had done, but I didn’t disregard it either.
Moreover, I did not claim that Arab contributions to astronomy were minor because they were inspired by Ptolemy’s Almagest. As I noted, Arab astronomers had issues with Ptolemy’s model of the solar system because of its inconsistency with the physics they understood (namely, that the Earth ought to be at the center of the universe a la Aristotle, not off to the side from the point all the planets actually revolved about a la Ptolemy). As I said:
Arab scientists did try to critique Ptolemy’s model, largely because in that solar system the Earth is not the true center
Also, I did not say the geocentric model was not doubted in the Arab world. What I said was it was outside of the Arab world
that the heliocentric model was first proposed and then argued favorably by astronomers (starting again with Copernicus).
As I said, Aristarchus was the first to argue for heliocentricism, and I could find no pre-Copernican Arab astronomer that advocated heliocentricism. There were philosophers that gave credit to it, such as Fakhr al-Din al-Razi (not to be confused with the chemist Mohammad ibn Zakariya al-Razi). But I said no astronomer argued for heliocentricism. The Maragha school of astronomers created innovative mathematical models to make the geocentric model consistent with their physics and observations, but they didn’t go for heliocentricism, and neither did al-Biruni though he admitted how heliocentricism could account for planetary observations. The best case for an Arab heliocentricist from this time is with al-Katibi, but he abandoned this. So, what I said was true given my specific wording. There was critical discussion of heliocentricism, but it lacked an advocate among the astronomers like Aristarchus, Seleucus, or Copernicus.
Moreover, I did not, as Brentjes claims, call the work of Arab geocentricists minor. Heck, I even mentioned how the work of Arab astronomers (such as al-Tusi) may have contributed to the innovation of Copernicus. Sure in a way the work of these scientists was like the early chemists that worked on phlogiston, but the approach was nonetheless scientific. Being wrong does not mean science wasn’t done, and the work was hardly useless. In addition, Ptolemy was wrong in his geocentricism, so to be consistent I would have to think that Ptolemy’s model and work was minor. Even though he and the astronomers at the Maragha observatory were ultimately wrong, their work isn’t minor to the history of science. (Compare that to Carl Sagan in Cosmos where he basically just talks about Ptolemy in disparaging terms.) All I claim is that those astronomers failed to jump to heliocentricism as Copernicus did.
So, I think Sonja Brentjes has unfairly claimed I said things I didn’t, I belittled work that I didn’t claim was minor, and I ignored things that were irrelevant to my critique (such as non-Greek astronomy contributions to Ptolemy). However, it is true that I do not know the full contribution medieval Arabs made to astronomy–just that it was not as great in magnitude as the previous Greco-Roman astronomers. I know that historian of science Richard Carrier agrees with me about the comparison between Hellenistic and medieval Arab scientific progress, so I’m not out on a limb alone. I’m also not completely ignorant on the subject. For example, for my paper on interpretations of the Star of Bethlehem, I traced astrological theories from Mesha’allah to Abu Mashar and then to Europeans; in my research I have also looked at the work of people like al-Biruni. I have also spent a goodly amount of time looking at cuneiform astronomical records and other related writings from the Middle East (all translated into English) for my research. (And note my handle is Gilgamesh, the famous king in epic who was Sumerian and best remembered in Akkadian texts, so I take interest beyond what the Greeks and Romans did.) But the library of what there is to explore is vast, and much of it may still be waiting to be found and translated. I want to learn more of it; it is fascinating.
To close, it is worth repeating something noted decades ago by David Pingree, the amazing polyglot and historian of science. Pingree saw in his field a sort of hellenophilia, that is, too much love of Greek contributions to science and ignorance of so many other cultures. Pingree himself helped to combat this by working in texts of many languages from across the Eastern world. Arabic, Pahlavi, Hindi, etc. And the history of science must not ignore the contributions and advancements made by Indians, Chinese, and Arabs. To those that forget such work, even if the non-Western scientists were ultimately wrong about things, “they clearly deprive themselves of an opportunity to understand science more deeply” (Pingree, “Hellenophilia versus the History of Science”, Isis 83, 4 (1992), p. 558). However, that doesn’t mean we can forgive the terrible presentation of 1001 Inventions. Brentjes and I still agree on that totally, but at least she is keeping us all honest, even if I think she misconstrued me. But that’s all part of scholastic exercises.
So, while I disagree with Brentjes on much of her critique of my post, I want to thank her for keeping me honest and accurate. I hope she finds my blog post on the flight of Ibn Firnas more in line with her research.

6 thoughts on “Continuing the Conversation on 1001 Inventions

  1. Hi Aaron,

    I apologize that I could not write my reply to your critique last weekend as I had hoped. But I am under a number of constrains and thus it had to wait until now. I also wanted to do a very careful rereading of your previous text to see what the reasons were you could not understand the points I was making. I will now try once more to state what is problematic with your text and hope you will try to consider these points seriously without jumping to negative conclusions too quickly.

    I consider your text as problematic due to the following points:
    a) approach
    b) methods
    c) arguments
    d) evidence
    e) formulations and concepts
    f) conclusions.

    a) You set up your reply to 1001 Inventions not only as a critique of the authors’ mistakes, lack of knowledge, inappropriate claims and iedologically ground evaluations, but as a proposal to compare to sets of broad cultural regions in regard to a few theoretical, observational and instrumental achievements (mainly taken from your critique at 1001 Inventions). This means your set up takes the historiographical position of 1001 Inventions seriously in principle, i.e. that it is possible to measure something like intellectual value of a culture (you call this differently, I simply want to be brief) versus that of another culture. The difference is simply that on your side the elementary facts are in most cases correct and their side they are too often wrong. None of you, however, poses the question of whether such a comparison is possible at all and what needs to be done for achieving a fair measurement, what does it mean to compare profoundly different cultures fairly. Both of you seem to believe that such a comparison can be done by stripping theoretical models, mathematical methods, instruments, observations and so on of their entire cultural contexts and compare merely the final results (and even this often not in full measure, but in a very reductionist form). Such an approach was typical for an older form of historiography, but has come under severe critique in the last half century and is not considered acceptable today by many historians and historians of science. There is a far reaching consensus that scholarly work in all its forms is context dependent and cannot be evaluated in isolation.

    My argument that you do not consider Ptolemy’s anchorage in the older ‘Babylonian’ tradition of observing, recording and interpreting the skies and the earth is exactly such a point. You constructee the ‘two’ sides of your comparison in a manner that is unacceptable for a serious academic study. Why? Because you isolate Hipparch and Ptolemy from their contexts. These contexts go not merely beyond what Ptolemy states clearly in the Almagest regarding his dependence on Babylonian material (which you thus could have known without any problem given your statement that you are familiar with Greek and Roman writings on astronomy) as Alexander Jones, John Steele and others have shown in last decades quite convincingly. These contexts seem to go to the heart of the project of theoretical astronomy in various Greek and Hellenistic states. Francesca Rochberg formulated this issue as follows: it is only with the growing familiarity with Babylonian astronomical tablets after Alexander’s conquest of Mesopotamia that Greek scholars began to observe the heavens in a systematic manner and to develop models based on observations. I am still not certain how reconcile this with the older type of history of Greek astronomy that I learned and you apparently read too, but she said very confidently that there is no evidence in the Greek sources for any modelling based on systematic observations before this period. Why is this important? If she is right in addition to what Jones and other have found than the older understanding of an isolated Greek astronomy created from within Greek intellectual tradition is certainly wrong. This however would put into question one part of the big cultural entity that you proposed to compare with either ‘Arab’ or ‘Islamic’ culture and its ‘scientific innovations’ (again I try to be brief). The identity of this side of the comparison then stands open for debate and probably also for reevaluation of the achievements attributed traditionally to it. I am not certain whether you can appreciate the enormity of the problem due to your lack of academic training in this field. It is also difficult to accept your merging of Greek, Hellenistic and Roman intellectual traditions, i.e. of ignoring their profound differences in attitude, interest, content, purpose, format etc. The same applies to the other side of your comparison. Here you subtract all groups that are not Muslims and in some remarks also all who are not Arabs from the culture you wish to compare. Your arguments that these people follow different beliefs and speak different languages and thus are not to be taken into consideration are limited to this side of the equation only. You did not make them for the different groups that contributed to scholarly life and its results on the other side of the equation. Thus your setting up of the two item to be compared is unequal and rather sloppy.

    b) Methods. Your texts shows no reflection on the appropriateness of your methods. You do not hesitate for a moment to ask yourself what kind of measuring device (both in terms of theory and instrumental practice) you wish to apply and whether this is legitimate and what could be its shortcomings. You seem to take it for granted and a simple matter that you can indeed measure things like “greatness” (i transformed your adjective great into the noun, just to avoid a rebuke of you saying you never spoke of greatness) of a scholarly activity and its results. Reading your arguments, examples astrolabe and Seneca the Younger, I have the impression that you allow for three criteria: primacy, revolution (i.e. debunking Aristotle’s physics and cosmology), agreement with our results about natural phenomena (I am intentionally saying it in this manner to indicate there is a problem here: a good number of things that the philosophers and astrologers (these are the more appropriate labelling of ancient and medieval experts for such themes according my experience with the sources; not astronomers or scientists) of the ancient and medieval societies postulated and argued about in cosmology and physics was false from our perspective and understanding of things, while what the mutakallimun (the people who wrote about the rational proof of matters of creed in various religious denominations in Islamicate societies, often translated as rational theologians, but as so many translations not fully correct) postulated was closer to our views although the arguments for it were religiously based and thus not close to our explanations).

    Primacy as a measuring device holds as far and only as far as it concerns 1001 Inventions. There it is often simple to make and thus merely a matter of correcting the nonsense found in 1001 Inventions. As a measurement per se for what you call differently “how much Greek and Roman scientists advanced the field of astronomy in ~ 500 years, while in the Arab world there were improvements but nothing in magnitude in accomplishment nor in speed in making those accomplishments” or “those accomplishments are simply not as great as those from earlier times” it is insufficient. Why? Quantity and quality. This is one of the problems that concern point d) evidence.

    Revolution as a measuring device is only suitable when it is situated in the period of the actors, i.e. when the revolutionaries considered themselves as such and set out to challenge an existing system. As a measuring device from hindsight it is limited in its historiographical value as you easily see in the extensive literature about the scientific revolution. Since revolution seems to be such an important criterion for you I am surprised that you did not consider the evaluation of the very substantial critique at Ptolemy’s models and parameters by predominantly Muslim scholars as revolutionary by several historians of science in Islamicate societies, i.e. by experts, as at least worthwhile to ponder. Saying that Copernicus (and this in a context that aims at heliocentrism) might have been influenced by some of these debates although it is not proven is not a fair evaluation of the different elements that constituted this critical work which took place over many generations. Your formulation rather diminishes the importance of these efforts than pays the respect to them they deserve in the contexts where they were made, both intellectually and culturally.

    Agreement with our results about natural phenomena: this is a hindsight argument and as such improper for an evaluation of different cultures. Moreover, there were other writers in Islamicate societies who independently of earlier scholars like Seneca wrote that comets are supralunar bodies or bodies that are not formed by vapors and the impact of the Sun etc. The primacy argument here is good for nothing, because a good part of Greek minor writings were not translated into Arabic and almost none of the Latin texts. Such ideas and beliefs were thus independent form each other and say nothing about the greater innovative character of the one or the other culture. They rather say something about the reception of Aristotle’s physics in certain groups in contrast to others.

    c) Arguments. Your main type of argument is reliance of ancient sources, while you do not refer to any medieval source. I am of course fine with the first, but find it very surprising that you did not treat medieval achievements to the same courtesy. I agree it is more difficult since less are edited and translated. But there are a number of primary source translations and many very good articles by my colleagues. In your rebuke of my critique you use authority as an argument to prove that I am wrong and you are right in you views about the relative merits of the two cultural blocks that you set up for comparison. This in general is a bad argument per se. It is disingenious in the specific case that you make since the person you present as an authority is neither a professional historian nor an expert for historc of science in Islamicate societies nor can he read primary sources from these societies. If you want to make at all this kind of ad hominem argument, please, choose an expert. There are many out there for you to choose among them.

    As for the correctness of your heliocentrism claim, i.e. that Greek astronomers considered Aristarchos’ model seriously, this is at best an overstatement, since as you well know there is only one scholar known today who indeed accepted it (Seleucus), while those who studied and are known by name rejected it. The claim “that the model had no significant discussion among the Arab world astronomers (sic)” is correct, but profoundly inappropriate, because this part of Aristarchos’ treatise was lost and had not been translated into Arabic. No wonder that it had no profound impact. Nonetheless, the idea of heliocentrism and of the rotation of the earth, as we both agree, was known among Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, was seriously discussed and rejected due to serious arguments. No principled difference to scholars like Ptolemy or Archimedes. Is this unfair representation of the situation a result of your lack of familiarity with the sources for the sciences in Islamicate societies or is it the result of prejudices?

    There are also a number of false arguments. Astrology did not develop in Persia. We do not know much about Sassanian astrological/astronomical theories, models, parameters etc., simply because these texts are lost or only known so far in small fragments in Arabic texts. What seems clear, however, that they built on Indian and Graeco-Babylonian material. If we should attribute beliefs in the impact of planets on events on earth to one and only one culture (which I tend to think is highly problematic and at best possible under a rather severely restricting definition of this kind of intellectual enterprise) the palm should go to Old Babylonia or perhaps even an earlier state. The textual body is, what you will certainly know, Enuma Anu Enlil. Religious diversity was not limited to Persia in the early centuries of Islamicate societies, but the norm everywhere. There is still a good amount of dispute when different Islamic creeds became dominant in different regions. The time span proposed ranges between the eighth and the tenth centuries. But even after the one or the other Islamic creed became dominant in terms of demography, there still were large as well as small groups of different religious beliefs across the vast territories from Morocco to India. It is not true that “most of the interesting science would be done” in “Persian areas”. It is true that interesting science was done from about the end of the ninth century in cities of Iran and other areas where Persian or another Iranian language was spoken. But for two and a half century at least it was Baghdad were a good amount of the interesting science was done. From the tenth century onwards, other areas also offered sufficient conditions to attract bright scholars and interesting texts were written, methods were modified, new observations were made etc. The large Jewish (and let me add Christian) population on the Iberian Pensinsula (not Spain) is not an argument for their members doing the interesting science there and not Muslims. In this particular case, it is indeed rather the other way around. There were early translations of some Latin texts on astronomy/astrology and other themes into Arabic, but of a relatively low level of sophistication as is the case for a good number of Latin works compiled in the Roman Empire. Hence, your introductory suggestion “If, for example, the Romans were innovating greater works on a faster time scale, that will make Arab (or Muslim) inventiveness seem less impressive.” is rhetorically funny, but as a matter of fact should lead to a fundamentally different conclusion than the one you offer.
    Ancient Greek and Latin texts did not become known again in Western Europe during the Crusader period. A number of them, even if not the most sophisticated of them, continued to be known throughout the centuries. Those that were lost became known in part thanks to the Muslims in al-Andalus, i.e. Muslims in western Europe = western Europeans with the same right as the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths, the Merovingians, the Franks, the Saxons, the Iberians and other tribes who all came from the east as well as Christianity and Judaism. This exlusion of Muslims/Arabs, Berbers, Persians in al-Andalus from European history is an old fashioned, ideologically grounded misrepresentation of the past. Others were brought from Byzantium. Only very, very few came through the Crusader state of Antioch.

    Your repeated claims that religions (Islam, belief in Zeus, the cult of Isis etc.) did not make scholarly work possible is in this rigid form wrong. Galen had a strong belief in the cult of Asclepios and referred to divine inspiration of his work more than once. As we already agreed there are quite a number of instances where Islamic beliefs had an impact (positive as well as negative) on scholarly works in Islamicate societies. Belief in Zeus and other ancient gods played an important role in the works of the Pre-Socratics, in this case as an inspiration to refute their impact on natural events. Eternity of the world, movement and other cosmological and physical topics depended for centuries on different religious beliefs, Catholicism and Protestantism included. They continue to impact the work of several physicists until today as you are well aware, I assume. If you were not simply to angry about 1001 Inventions and thus running too fast in your rebuttal, this kind of argument is not very solid.

    Your making fun of the moon craters being named after Muslim scholars by early modern Italian and other scholars is only appropriate in so far as 1001 Inventions overstates the case. It should have perhaps induced you to reflect about the appreciation that Riccioli, a Jesuit writer on astronomy, had for these Muslim scholars. As for remainders of Arabic star names in today’s star nomenclature again this is not really an issue of primacy since numerous components came together over the century in today’s lists of names and numbers, some of them going of course back to ancient Mesopotamia, other ot Greek mythology which in itself is a hybrid, others to Latin corruptions of Arabic translations of such mythical names, others to pre-Islamic Arabic lore etc. Fighting here for a Greek or even Graeco-Roman primacy is more an indicator of simplified cultural memory than solid knowledge. As you see, there are quite a number of indicators that you do not speak sine ira, but cum studio about the issues of past scholarly activites and their results.

    d) evidence: This problem falls into two big catgories. The first is the evidence you offer explicitly in your text. This evidence are mainly your examples in favor of the better rate of innovation in Greek, Hellenistic and Roman societies. The second is the evidence you exlude from your text. You abstained from a meticulous comparison of the quantity of new inventions made in various Islamicate societies by scholars of different creeds, for instance in the domain of instruments. Most of those as I suggested in my argument about astronomical instruments in these societies you simply leave out of your consideration or devaluate them by subsuming the phnenomenon under the term ‘improvement’ the value of which you downgrade explicitly and consciously when you write at the end of your texts after acknowledging once more such improvements that “those accomplishments are simply not as great …”. While for debunking 1001 Inventions’ claims on the armillary sphere and the astrolabe this is not important, for the comparison you set up such a negligence of evidence is improper. Another type of evidence you exclude from your comparison is the comparison of quality. This applies, for instance, to spherical geometry (not al-Kindi, but later scholars) and astronomical models and parameters. Here, the only change of importance that you allow for is heliocentrism. The work of in this case predominantly Muslim scholars on the models, the creation of a new subdiscipline within the field of astronomy (‘ilm al-hay’a, often translated as mathematical cosmography or simply planetary theory), the integration of this subdiscipline into the madrasa and into the religious discipline of kalam all escaped your attention. I don’t know whether this happened because you do not know these things or because you considered them irrelevant. But a serious academic comparison has on include all available evidence and not simply bits and pieces. Moreover, the issue of building mathematical models on one of the then accepted physical theories is a serious theoretical issue as I wrote in my second example you found irrelevant and inappropriate because you had not used the word ‘minor’. Ptolemy tried to do the same in his Planetary Hypotheses. Hence it is not an issue of primacy. But it is, according to the fragmentary state of our sources regarding Ptolemy and our knowledge regarding Arabic and Persian planetary models, one of completeness, consistency, epistemology and mathematical modelling. You only talk of the last point. Again, I don’t know whether this is because you don’t know the other elements or whether you do not appreciate them.

    I did not count all your examples, but my notes suggest that you mention the armillary sphere, the astrolabe, spherical geometry, geocentric model, predictability, precession, heliocentrism and comets as supralunar, not sublunar objects. These are exactly eight items and they are of different types, i.e. not comparable among each other. This is a very weak and sloppily constructed basis for your claims. Only one of them comes from a Roman author (comets, Seneca the Younger). All the others are limited to three Greek and Hellenistic writers (Aristarchos, Hipparchos, Ptolemaios), if we ignore Aristotle and Apollonios who do not play a significant role in your arguments, or five if we add them. All that is not very convincing as far as the core of your proposed comparison goes. You do not calculate the promised speed per time scale nor do you really do enough work ot prove that beyond primacy these items should be seen in any specific sense as “greater works” than say for your example of spherical geometry the work by al-Khwarazmi, Habash al-Hasib, Abu l-Wafa’. Abu Nasr Ibn Iraq, al-Biruni, Nasir al-Din Tusi, al-Marrakushi or Shams al-Din al-Khalili, to name only a few of those involved in inventing new functions, new methods, new concepts and new theorems and systematized this knowledge in new forms.

    Sanad b. ‘Ali did not convert to Islam in order “to get into the good graces of Caliph al-Ma’mun”. He was already in his good graces for quite some time when he converted and we do not know why he converted. The medieval sources do not give a reason for his decision. They simply state that he did so under “the hands of al-Ma’mun”. This probably means that there was some kind of inducement involved, but which kind remains unknown. To translate the mihna by inquisition is widespread, but kind of unfortunate. It was limited to a short period of time at the end of al-Ma’mun’s life and during the short reign of al-Mu’tasim. It concerned, as far as I know, mainly people who wished to operate as a judge or give fatwas. It consisted in pressuring them to accept the Mu’tazili belief that the Qur’an, while God’s message, was created by humans.

    e) formulations and concepts

    You are also rather sloppy in your formulations and not always well informed on the meaning of concepts. Eurocentrism, for instance, does not mean that you do not mention contributions of non-Greek or non-Roman cultures. Many authors writing about the history of science and mathematics or medicine or philosophy have acknowledged other cultures, in particular high cultures of the ancient and the medieval worlds. The issue is to interprete ancient Greek, Hellenistic and Roman intellectual traditions as either European or Western and to rank them higher than any of the other cultures with insufficient basis, questionable methodology and ideological prejudices.

    In your rebuke you call most of my critique red herring which usually means you did not reflect on what I wrote, but felt offended and simply hit back. I did not call you a racist as you claim explicitly. I called one of the sources (Klingschor) that you recommended to your readers (“a few folks on YouTube that have studied Islam in an academic fashion also have their own responses, especially notable being that of Klinschor (sic)”) a racist on the basis of one of the videos that he posted on YouTube which you could have watched yourself to understand the solidity of what you recommend. This video is The Portrayal of Muslim Converts in Western Media. A statement that in my view should have obliged to check this person’s writing carefully comes up on Google when you only type Kilngschor: Klingschor: I have a love-hate relationship with Islam and the Greater Middle-East Your statement that he is one of the folks … “that have studied Islam in an academic fashion” is not only sloppy parlance, but misleading if as you claim now all that you know about him is that he is a student. Being a student is not the same as studying Islam (or any part of any Islamicate society) in an academic manner. I checked once more Klingtschors’ main profile as linked on his Blog. There is no suggestion that he is indeed an Academic. although the Blog indicates that he is familiar with a good amount of literature on Islam. The items I read are highly provocative and tendentious. I think you have an obligation to know whom and what you recommend if you wish to be seen as a serious critique of nonsense à la 1001 Inventions and not merely as another ideologue. I have tried to take you for the former, not the latter.

    I described your evaluation of the critique of Ptolemy’s models by Muslim scholars as denigrating them and as presenting them of minor value, because of your sentences “However, Arab scientists did try to critique Ptolemy’s model,…” or “At this point you can begin to see how much Greek and Roman scientists advanced the field of astronomy in ~ 500 years, while in the Arab world there were improvements but nothing in magnitude in accomplishment nor in speed in making those accomplishments.” And with all due respect and sympathy for being severely criticized, I continue to feel when reading your two texts that you do not appreciate the things that Muslim scholars did over centuries in the same way as you appreciate ancient Greek authors or even Roman writers. Your way of using language is rather indicative for this differential treatment. I am still willing to attribute this to some degree to your lack of familiarity with texts, instruments and images produced by scholars and craftsmen in Islamicate societies, whether Muslim or not. But I did not say that you have to have read all academic writings on such matters for qualifying for a Blog. You are often kind of generous in your formulations.

    As for your continued acceptance of Jason’s critique of Taner’s and my little review of 1001 Inventions in the Skeptical Inquirer as competent, I wish to remind you that this critique did not say as you and Jason (later) claim that we would have had to quote instead of summarize the statements about Ibn Firnas in 1001 Inventions, because only with a quote a reader of the review could have had the full picture, i.e. did not have to read 1001 Inventions him/herself. This demand is of course inappropriate regarding a review. No review can replace the own reading or viewing of the reviewed work. It also is slightly funny to claim that a summary is not providing the same kind of information as a quote. You two must have had a very peculiar education in English in school if you really believe that. No, the judgment I took offense with in Jason’s original statement of the critique was his claim that we rejected 1001 Inventions because of their claim that Muslims contributed a lot to medieval science. This is precisely not what we wrote. We criticízed the ideological message of 1001 Invention because exhibition and companion book claim that medieval Muslim achievements in the sciences and the realm of technology had a direct impact on today’s sciences and technologies and without those medieval achievements our scientific knowledge and our technologies would not exist. If Jason and you cannot see the difference between the two statements, I cannot but feel sorry. The second point I criticized Jason for is his utter misrepresentation of our summary of 1001 Inventions’ representation of Ibn Firnas’ flight effort as our own claims. Again, if neither of you can understand what is clearly verbally marked as a summary of some other text from a direct claim, I can only regret to have made the effort to discuss the various issues with you two. There are other points I have severe issues with Jason with, but they do not belong to his critique of Taner’s and my review.

    f) Conclusions. Needless to say by now, I assume, that I do not think that your conclusion is appropriate nor that it is well founded. In principle, I believe a comparison as you proposed them is extremely difficult to execute in a solidly based, verifiable and honest manner, free of too many prejudices in the one or the other direction and shortcomings of other kinds. I believe more and more that it is necessary to learn to appreciate differences between cultures, between different intellectual traditions and different possibilities under which scholars and craftspeople of the past worked in. I believe it is our duty to abstain from judgments that simplify and devaluate cultures we do not know well. We rather have the duty to try our best to study them, to understand what they did on their own terms and to pay respect to their efforts and struggles in their specific circumstances.

    This is a long reply to your two texts. It took me hours to write it. I tried to be careful, but clear. Writing about the past in an appropriate manner is difficult. Imagine some amateur would write a text about any topic of physics or astrophysics or anything from these domains without trying to understand all aspect of the topic according to the standards of that field, how would you feel about such a text? Hence there is no need to be surprised that I started responding to Jason’s and your texts which I feel lack goodwill and qualification for the subject that they treat. I am defending here the same principles of academic work about the past as I do with regard to 1001 Inventions. In this sense, it does not matter too much that the faults in 1001 Inventions are more numerous and more capital and that the ideological claims differ. These differences matter however in so far as I still hope that you are willing to take my critique seriously and think about it, while I have given up this hope in regard to 1001 Inventions for quite some time after having made efforts in this direction too. I am trying to do a book on 1001 Inventions and this kind of unacceptable treatment of the past. I have invited colleagues from different fields, including museum curators, to participate. Would you be interested in participating as a critical customer so to speak and write something about what you would consider a proper, appropriate, attractive public, popular presentation of the works of scholars and craftsmen from Islamicate societies in domains that we consider today as sciences and mathematics?

    That’s it for today. I hope I hit a better note with you than with my first critique.

    Best, Sonja

    • Hi Sonja,

      Thank you for this very erudite critique. I can definitely tell you put a lot of time into it, and spending that much time on educating me I have to appreciate. There are a few particulars I want to respond to, but not now. In the mean time, I want to say that I would very much like to be a part of the popular presentation of Arab scientific and mathematical achievement. Please keep me in such a loop. It sounds like a very worthy project and far more informative than what is being passed around now.

      Thank you again for the criticism and for inviting me into your next project as a critical customer.


      • Hi Aaron,

        nice that we can talk above and beyond differences of opinion etc. This is really great.

        Now as for the book, I feel there is a little misunderstanding. This is not about doing directly a popular presentation of past sciences in Islamicate societies. The intention is to enter a public debate or create one on why 1001 Inventions is so highly problematic and how things should be represented in a manner that we as academics can say this is reliable, but the public also can say this is enjoyable and worthwhile to read or watch. So, various colleagues will write directly on 1001 Inventions, critique some part and present the same stuff themselves in what they think would be good for the broader public. Others will talk about their experiences with popularizing research. I thought you might want to participate in this debate either by writing your own text on how you think a good popular presentation of past sciences in Islamicate societies should be done. You could choose one or two examples and explain what you would find interesting in terms of questions to be addressed, how to document possible answer, how to translate such a medieval piece of knowledge in a manner that today’s people can understand it and any other issue that would be important to you. Or you could write about your experiences as a visitor of such exhibitions and compare them among each other and reflect on their differences and your reactions to them. Or again, you could choose any other relevant theme connected to popularizing academic research on past sciences in cultures that are not familiar to you. Whatever you prefer. If you have another idea, let me know. Anything that helps to move the debate forward and improves knowledge about the complexities of scholarly work in past Islamicate societies is welcome.

        Best, Sonja

    • Hi Sonja,

      I have been giving some thought to the proposal here, and thank you again for considering me in it. It would probably be best to do the discussion over email rather than a comments section, so contact me so I know what email address to use. It’s best to reach me at

      In the mean time, my basic thought is something with astronomy and its history, but it would also pan over a lot of time and cultures. Perhaps too ambitious for a public representation, but I don’t know. Let me know how best to contact you on the matter.

  2. Pingback: A Great Discussion with Sonja Brentjes | Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars

  3. Pingback: Upcoming Writing Projects | Fleeing Nergal, Seeking Stars

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